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Perfect storm of a housing crisis

26 October 2012

Christians must act together to address the acute need, argues Alison Gelder


ON THE one hand, there has been a housing crisis throughout England for at least the past ten years. On the other, Churches have a long history of both practical and campaigning responses to housing problems. The situation we face today is as bad as it has ever been, and is set to deteriorate.

Yet it is not enough to be prophets of doom. Now is the moment to chal­lenge the morality of failing policies, and to take whatever action we can ourselves to remedy the situation.

Failure to build enough homes each year to keep up with the growth in the number of households has finally combined with changes to the benefit system to create the perfect storm. We are now on the edge of a housing precipice, the like of which has not been seen since the post-war need to replace the dwellings lost to bombing raids.

Churches have always responded to housing need, whether by pro­viding basic food and shelter, by founding housing associations, or by offering advice. Our motivations are a complex mix of humanitarian com­passion, practical necessity (how do I help this caller at the vicarage door?), and theological imperative (there are many biblical references, but Isaiah 58.6 and Matthew 25.40 are good places to start).

DURING World Homelessness Day earlier this month, more than 80 people from a range of denomina­tions gathered to discuss how churches should respond to the deep­ening crisis of affordable housing. We focused on London, but the situation is similar across the country.

The crisis is having the heaviest impact on the poorest among us. More people are now sleeping on the streets: in July and August, outreach teams met 1869 people in London, up 17 per cent from the same period last year. Between April and June this year, 12,860 households (more than 36,000 people) were accepted by local auth­orities in England as homeless - more than 21 per cent of them because their shorthold tenancy had come to an end.

The Manchester Evening News reported this month that less than one in four properties available for rent in the area was within the range of Housing Benefit.

At the same time, at the Con­servative Party Conference, ministers continued to heap blame on benefit recipients: the Chancellor contrasted people who "sleep off a life on benefits" with "hard-working taxpayers".

A SIGNIFICANT concern is the per­ceived unfairness of caps on Housing Benefit, which have been in action now for more than a year. They are forcing people out of their homes and failing to bring down rents.

While economic and political orthodoxy has it that it was the re­moval of rent regulation in 1988 which caused the expansion of the private rented sector in Britain, there were several other factors at work. Social housing was being rapidly shrunk by the right to buy.

Lending controls were removed, and buy-to-let mort­gages became available. Residen­tial property be­came the most popular form of pri­vate investment, and the social status of landlords improved from the days of Rigsby in the TV series Rising Damp.

The experience of other countries - Ireland, for example, where rent regulation is successfully in operation - is that the key factor in increasing the supply of private rented accom­mo­­dation is the confidence of land­lords that they can remove unwanted ten­ants when necessary. The con­clusion that I would draw from this is that rent regulation is a viable altern­ative to benefit-capping as a means of re­ducing the Housing Benefit bill.

CHURCHES need to respond to this. For effective change to take place, we need to change the discourse in our society about both benefit claimants and wealth gained through house-price appreciation. This has to begin with listening to ourselves, and alter­ing how we speak of these things in our homes, churches, and our media (even this newspaper).

We need to remember that a home­less person may well be as clean, well-read, and abstemious as the rest of us, and should not always be represented as dirty, ignorant, and an addict. Also, the wealth that I have gained through the increasing value of my house is actually less the fruit of my labours than the banker's bonus is of his - and even less likely to be fairly taxed.

Individual Christians and churches can commit themselves to campaign­ing for the household benefit cap to reflect average incomes (and higher housing costs) in London by adding a London weighting to the national average calculation. Nationally, private-sector rent increases could be limited to the annual increase in the Con­sumer Prices Index, as a minimalist (but effective) form of rent regulation.

There is a real possibility that churches could work together to max­imise the use of their land and property for social and mutual hous­ing projects, such as co-operatives and community land trusts. In the same way as social housing in the 19th century was shaped by the actions of private philanthropists such as Oc­tavia Hill (Comment, 12 October), there is an opportunity for the provision of permanently affordable housing to be created through the giving of church land and property to community land trusts, or to housing co-operatives. This has already been tried successfully in rural areas - for example, in the diocese of Salisbury, where glebe land has been used to create new social housing in villages.

A group led by Housing Justice is also investigating the possibility of setting up a new ethical lettings agency or co-operative to allow small landlords to let to benefit claimants and formerly homeless people with greater ease and con­fidence.

The challenge now for churches is to address the housing crisis. If we unite our voices, mobilise our re­sources, and focus our activities, we can lift up the dignity of our fellow citizens who have the misfortune to claim benefits. We can challenge the unfair­ness of government policies, and act to make a lasting difference to the provision of afford­able housing. The question is: are we up for it?

Alison Gelder is the director of Housing Justice. The charity is now collecting information about good practice at www.housingjustice.org.uk.

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